In the Heart of the Mountains

The Al Hajar mountain range in north Oman spans almost the entire country from east to west. This vast region is home to some of the most beautiful and wild places that you can visit and explore. One of my favorite places is located close to the picturesque village of Bilad Sayt (see map below for general location). To reach this spot are two main alternatives: you can drive from Muscat to Al Hamra and go up the gentle southern flank of the mountain via a nice blacktop road; or you can drive from Muscat to Nakhl and go up the steep northern flank. The latter option is the one I prefer, as it involves driving along a very scenic gravel road that crosses some beautiful landscapes and mountain villages. It requires a 4WD vehicle, and careful driving, but it is well worth the effort.

Location map.

Once you leave the black top, you will enter Wadi Bani Awf, and its labyrinth of canyons surrounded by jagged peaks. After a few km of driving through the valley floor, with some green farms along the way, the road starts to climb, along a series of sharp curves. This part of the trip will take you to Bilad Sayt, a village that is nested on the flank of a hill, surrounded by mountains and green cultivated fields. Just before reaching the village, don’t miss one of the entry points for the famous Snake Gorge, a deeply cut and narrow canyon where the sun rarely shines; it is one of the most popular adventure destinations in Oman, involving some rough trekking and swimming through a few pools. I did it back in 2003, and it was a thrill.

Inside wadi Bani Awf.
Small farm in wadi Bani Awf.
Going up.
Looking down into part of Snake Gorge.
Before Bilad Sayt.
General view of Bilad Sayt.
Bilad Sayt.

Bilad Sayt is a good place to take a leisurely walk in between the farms and houses, to experience a way of living that is centuries old. Omanis are very friendly and will be invited to have coffee and dates. After the village, the road becomes quite steep, as it ascends the flank of the mountain, which on this side is almost vertical. Be prepared to negotiate hairpin bends and use low gear. The upside is that some fantastic views will open in front of your eyes, encompassing the mountain range and wadis. It is impossible not to stop a few times to take photos.

Half way up the mountain.

It is early January, so when I finally reach the top, it is colder than in the valley; after all, we are roughly 2,000 above sea level. Compared to the last time I was here, in 2009, a couple of tourist projects have been built, but it is still quiet and peaceful. There are other people around, mainly sightseeing; as I mentioned earlier, it is easier just to drive up the northern side of the mountain. I pitch up my tent and sit down for a while, enjoying a snack and taking in the views and feel of the place. I am close to the edge of the steep cliff, and the panoramic views are amazing. A few goats are grazing in this rocky landscape, which is mostly barren and dry, apart from a few bushes and some trees.

View from the cliff’s edge.
The wall.
Lone tree.
Tree at sunset.

I walk around taking photos and waiting for the sunset. Down in the valleys below, the nighttime is already encroaching, while towards the west, the sky and clouds take on the warm colors of the setting sun. It is a magical part of the day. During the night, the temperature dropped considerably, to only a few degrees above freezing. Some heavy clouds also rolled in, but only a few raindrops fell. Looking at the image files later, I decided to convert a few to black and white, to enhance the light and the shapes in the landscape.

Sunset panorama.
Shadows and clouds in black and white.
Waves of rock in black and white.
At night.

The following morning, I woke up before sunrise and had another great photo session. I walked along the ridge taking photos as the sun was rising, with some great light. I was only surrounded by windy silence, the same goats from the previous day, and a couple of eagles flying above me. After an hour or so, it was time to have breakfast and break out camp. It was a wonderful experience to come back to this place and see that it remains unspoiled.

First light.
First light.
Soft colors.
Day breaks.
Sunrise panorama #1.
Sunrise panorama #2.

As a final note, all photos were taken with my Fujifilm kit, namely the XT-4 and XT-5 cameras, with the 16mm f/1.4 and 56mm f/1.2 lenses.

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I was born in Lisbon in 1966, and I am a geologist. My main interests as a photographer are Landscapes, Travel, and People. I have been fortunate enough to work in different places and contacted diverse cultures. I am also fortunate to live in a small, but beautiful country, Portugal.